Local senior centers are starting to open back up after over a year without in-person meals and activities. And they’re seeing a lot of new faces.
“One thing that COVID did bring out is that there are people in our community that need help," said Kathy Romain, director of the Kenai Senior Center. “There are people in our community we didn't reach. And COVID brought a lot of those folks out.”
The Meals on Wheels program was particularly popular. Both the Kenai and Soldotna centers more than doubled their home delivery services, as seniors were stuck at home.
Romain said they’ve seen the home delivery numbers drop a bit since resuming in-person service at the center five days a week. But she thinks a lot of those new clients are here to stay.
“"I think it showed folks that even though they live in Kenai, may not have understood that the senior center delivers home meals," Romain said. "And that we’re here. And people are hungry.”
Soldotna Senior Center Director John Walker said a lot of his new Meals-on-Wheels clients were referred by relatives.
“And then of course there was public marketing, too," he said. "We put the word out that ‘Hey, we’re providing meals for seniors and a lot of relatives actually called in to refer their elder relatives in for these services.”
He thinks they have about 50 to 60 new clients using meal service. The center also is serving meals in its dining room again, at limited capacity.
The center hit a hiccup this month when one of its employees tested positive for COVID-19. Walker said unvaccinated employees had to quarantine and get tested.
Walker and another employee have been delivering meals while they’re understaffed. He’s trying to bring on more volunteer drivers to meet demand, since they’re booked even when there is a full staff.
“And we’re just talking about the meals now too," he said. "Information and assistance has skyrocketed."
Seniors will call in to ask about testing and vaccinations. Walker said some days, the phones don’t stop ringing.
The center’s finances have also shifted. Walker said a lot of the money for the center usually comes from fundraisers and donations made at congregate meals. But lately, that’s been supplemented more by its pull-tab store in town.
“They have actually been selling at the rate we haven’t seen since probably 2012, 2013," Walker said.
The Soldotna Senior Center is easing back into activities. The Kenai center has restarted a lot of its programs, from bridge to writers’ group to bluegrass nights.
Romain said returning to that social component has been huge.
“They’re so excited to sit and visit," she said. "Just over a cup of coffee.”
The center's used grants to COVID-proof the facility, with touchless faucets in the bathrooms and sanitary stations all over the building.
Romain said she’s going to be thinking about how to initiate contact with seniors and educate more people about what the senior center does.
“We as a staff are trying to work through, ‘OK, how do we continue to reach those folks without a pandemic? Why does it take a pandemic to reach those folks?’”
The Kenai Senior Center is putting on a fundraiser for the Fourth of July. It’s hosting a pie booth there and is looking for rhubarb for its strawberry rhubarb pies. If you have rhubarb to spare, call the center at 283-4156.